(Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The eternal return of baseball
season invites a special nostalgia for a time when the game's
greats didn't seem like the hothouse athletes of today so much
as a national register of regular guys. Tall, short, skinny, fat:
Baseball legends came in every shape, like the rest of us, yet
managed to awe us with their unlikely mastery of a sport that
has more facets than a well-cut gem.
In most cases, they were rough
diamonds — on the diamond — and few came rougher than
Billy Martin, as chronicled in Bill Pennington's peerless new
biography, Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius (***½
out of four).
From his hardscrabble Italian-American
origins in West Oakland, Calif., Martin broke in as a second baseman
for the New York Yankees in the 1950s, and wound up managing the
Yankees, and other teams, in the course of 16 stormy seasons.
Martin's time was marked by
on- and off-field fisticuffs, much drinking, multiple divorcing
and a lot of winning. He famously kicked dirt at uncooperative
umpires, feuded in the dugout with Reggie Jackson, and got along,
it seemed, with no one.
He was complicated and conflicted
(he even suffered a nose job to tame his ethnic snout), his dark
side coexisting with a likability and charisma that made him a
fan favorite. He knew the intricacies and psychology of the game
better than most, and could out-manage the likes of Casey Stengel,
Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre and Sparky Anderson (Martin had a higher
winning percentage than those and other equally renowned skippers).
Remarkably, Yankees owner
George Steinbrenner hired and fired him five separate times as
manager of the Bronx Bombers in the 1970s and '80s. (Martin died
at age 61 in a 1989 pickup truck accident just outside his upstate
New York home.) It amounts to a big, sprawling story of a big,
brawling life, and no one has a better purchase on it than Pennington,
The New York Times scribe who knew Martin well after covering
him closely for five years as a Yankees beat writer.
Pennington persuasively traces
Billy's baseball genius to the luck of geography: Martin grew
up near Kenney Park in West Oakland, a superb playing field where
California-based baseball professionals came to train in the off-season.
The young Martin, a very good but not great athlete, hung out
daily with the pros, who liked him and taught him, enhancing his
love of baseball with strategic insight. By the time he became
a Yankee second baseman, he was a graduate student of the game.
Inevitably, Pennington's admiration
for his subject makes Billy Martin somewhat hagiographic —
Billy's endearing humanity is always front and center, suggesting
saintly struggle. But Pennington's thorough reportage doesn't
shrink from Martin's flaws, insecurities and downright bad behavior.
Rightly or not, he tends to blame baseball as much as the man:
"There was free booze in every clubhouse in the country.
… The whole bunch of them were Mad Men before … television
writers created Mad Men."
And so Billy Martin rollicks
along with a cast of characters to make even a casual fan misty-eyed,
as Billy carouses with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra,
Whitey Ford, and does battle on the field against New York's other,
greater second baseman, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And just as the movies made
hay with biopics about the immortal Robinson, it may be time to
lighten — and darken — the screen with a Billy Martin
film. Pennington's book is surely the stuff of a Hollywood home
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